Grading Papers: A Better Way?
My thesis—that vast power issues lurk beneath the apparently selfless act of laboriously grading papers—is sure to evoke skepticism. As thousands of weary English instructors can attest, grading papers often feels like drudgery, not power: Night after night we labor over dull, muddled, and error-laden essays.
We can’t even count on accomplishing something significant and long lasting. All too often students’ revisions show little improvement, and subsequent assignments demonstrate that our pleadings about spelling, fragments, and comma splices have fallen on deaf ears. In The Composition Instructor’s Survival Guide, Brock Dethier sums up our dilemma in terms not of power but exploitation: “our institutions pay us for a tiny percentage of the work we do, and instead of taking up all the slack ourselves, shortchanging ourselves and our families and eventually burning out and quitting, we need to come closer to giving our students what the institution pays for” (76-77).
But despite the realities of teacher exploitation, power issues lie in the shadows of everything we do. Brooke K. Horvath sums up the fears of many instructors when she warns that students may be “alienated, antagonized, by our thought-heavy marginalia and terminal remarks” (243). Most of us try to minimize these dangers by maintaining a positive tone in our oral and written comments to students. Encouragement is the order of the day, as can be seen in the pages of many current English journals, which urge writing instructors to be “charitable and helpful” to student writers (Briggs and Pailliotet 58).
But kinder and gentler responses are only one antidote to the complex problems of instructional authority. What I’m advocating here is something more radical. Depth psychology says that revolution always lies waiting in the shadows of power, and a revolution in our work habits is exactly what I’m calling for. Less, I contend, is more—not because I think English teachers are overworked and underpaid (although we assuredly are), or because we should demand less of students (I reject that approach), or because peer editing and conferences can do the job (I don’t think they can). And I am certainly not suggesting that we should stop reading and responding to student essays.
But we need to recognize how disabling our business-as-usual, late-night scribbling can be: It tells students that we have no faith in their ability to solve their usage, editorial, and organizational problems. Yes, my students are often befuddled by even the simplest requirements of college writing. (I teach in a community college in the rural South, where I spend about eighty percent of my time working with basic writers.) Yes, I get frustrated—and so do my students. But I believe that rather than doing their editorial work for them, we must empower students to solve their own writing problems. We need to find out: a) why some students write poorly, and b) which teaching practices will give them the confidence and skill needed to overcome those difficulties. The time for intervention is before the stacks of essays find their way into our briefcases, not after—and the changes and corrections must be done by students, not for them.
The Teaching Archetype
In this article I propose to apply insights from depth psychology to the complex, power-charged relationship between students and teachers. My source is Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig’s Power in the Helping Professions—a book about the negative forces that often operate in secret as ministers, teachers, physicians, and social workers strive to fulfill their mission of serving humanity. The author, a Jungian analyst, is intrigued by archetypes—ancient mythic patterns, personified in figures from old stories and traditions, that humans re-enact all their lives. He explains that all archetypes—including the teacher archetype—are split into two opposing poles. A wise and nurturing teacher lives in our psyches, accompanied by an untutored, free-spirited student on the brink of exciting discoveries. This split archetype enables us to identify with and enjoy our students despite vast differences in background and experience.
When teachers lose touch with their “inner student” (if I may coin a phrase), the inner teacher swells and takes over, leading to resentment and burnout. Worse yet, teachers who identify only with the authoritarian side of the archetype may trigger the opposite pole in their students—heedless irresponsibility. The likely outcome is teachers and students at war with each other.
Guggenbuhl-Craig’s most important insight, I think, is that the same teacher/student archetype is present in our students. If he is correct, then a wise and nurturing teacher lies hidden within the psyches of the students who drive us to despair with their overdue assignments, misplaced commas, and reckless splashes of correction fluid. Our job, according to Guggenbuhl-Craig, is to activate that inner teacher, just as physicians must awaken the inner healer within their patients.
“Activate” is the key word, and current research about brain function reinforces Guggenbuhl-Craig’s argument. Neuroscience has discovered that the brain is not the static organ we once believed it to be. As psychiatrist Susan C. Vaughan explains, “learning occurs through changes in the strength of connectors between various neurons” (40). When stimulated, neurons can migrate, connect, and increase at any stage of human life. “The growth of new connections changes learning from a short-term, functional shift in the effectiveness of a synapse to a long-term, structural change in the bunches of the nerve cells, as well in the number of synapses between the two cells” (Vaughan 62).
This scientific information triggered an “Aha!” experience for me late one night while I was visualizing the students who had written the essays piled high on my worktable. Some students, I imagined, were sleeping; others were working late shifts, watching TV, talking on the phone, or partying. Whose neurons, I asked myself, were migrating, connecting, increasing? Not theirs, but mine. It was the beginning of my personal revolution.
I recall a story that helped me understand how much potential lies undeveloped within most human brains: Two men were walking down a busy street in Manhattan on a weekday afternoon. One of the men—an ornithologist—suddenly stopped. “Did you hear that?” he asked—and named a rare bird whose song he had just heard. Amazed, his friend asked how it was possible to hear a bird in the clatter of weekday traffic. “It’s all in what you’re trained to notice,” the ornithologist replied. To prove his point, he dropped a nickel onto the sidewalk: Instantly a hundred people stopped to look for it.
As both psychology and neuroscience attest, education and experience shape our perceptions. That ornithologist heard the bird song because his brain was constantly running a high-quality mental software program for bird identification. Similarly we English teachers possess sophisticated mental software for writing and editing. Our students—unfortunately—don’t. I vividly recall what happened the first time I asked my students to make a list the of words like it’s/its and to/too that need careful proofreading: They just looked at me helplessly. At that moment I realized the futility of my red-ink teaching method. In the language of the Twelve-Step recovery movement, I was spending my time enabling, not empowering.
A New Beginning
Empowerment begins when students are challenged by a stimulating writing task. I am convinced that inadequate assignments, rather than carelessness or low skill levels, are the primary reason why students write poorly. Only writers gripped by ideas can produce forceful sentences, tightly organized paragraphs, and hard-hitting essays: There is no other way to write well.
Consider, for example, the meaningless topics that students usually choose for “modes” essays: three types of cars, small towns versus cities, comparisons between high school and college. Look closely at their final drafts, and you’ll see that the essays are actually elaborate lists of random information heading nowhere. Yet there are great possibilities for writers hidden within the traditional modes. Classification proved useful to educator John Holt when he wanted to challenge traditional either/or thinking about spanking: In Freedom and Beyond, he demonstrated that parents and teachers can choose from four types of discipline, not just one. Pete Hamill’s “Crack and the Box” is another excellent example, with its startling comparison between television and cocaine. Teachers can use models like these to design assignments that empower students to write.
“Nancy,” a student who wrote a rough draft reproduced in a recent article by Richard Straub, exemplifies what happens when a student’s well of ideas runs dry. Nancy was assigned to critique a New York Times article advocating the legalization of illicit drugs. Straub then asked five instructors to comment on what she had written. He provides a thoughtful analysis of their responses and a sane recommendation: Teachers need to ask themselves, “What kind of comments will be best for this student, with this paper, at this time?” (247).
Straub’s article, carefully balancing both the voices of students and the power of their teachers, is well worth reading. My interest, however, lies in an area he did not explore: the assignment Nancy was given. All the responders agreed that her draft was poorly written—sentences are awkward, ideas clumsily organized, points weakly developed. But no one noticed out that Nancy had missed the stated purpose of the assignment—evaluating the Times article. Her actual critique consisted of only one cliched sentence—“LeMoult’s article was short and sweet” (227)—followed by a paragraph summarizing his ideas.
Nancy instead used the article as a springboard to argue against the legalization of drugs. But having only one source to work with—the Times article—and minimal knowledge of the legal issues surrounding illicit drugs, she had little to say. For example, she did not consider that legalizing marijuana might be different from legalizing cocaine. Yet none of the responders asked her to do more reading.
After I’d read Nancy’s draft, I wondered how well I would have done in her place. My answer: badly. I have had years of criminal justice experience as a prison teacher, a coordinator of a life skills program for juvenile offenders, and an adjunct in a police academy. I’ve read articles, pro and con, about drug legalization. But that knowledge and experience have shown me only that I‘m not yet ready to argue for or against legalizing drugs. Why, for example, did conservative commentator William F. Buckley favor legalizing marijuana, while the more liberal Clinton administration firmly opposed it even for medicinal use? And I would probably fare no better if I adhered to the letter of the assignment and critiqued the Times article. Evaluating the author’s assumptions, research, methodology and conclusions would again require knowledge I don’t yet have.
So I am not surprised that Nancy’s critique is poorly written, with feeble sentences and undeveloped ideas. The climactic topic sentence shows that Nancy herself recognized the inadequacies of her draft: “My only and most important argument to LeMoult is the physical harm it would bring by legalizing drugs” (228).
Empowering students means, first of all, planning doable assignments with clearly stated guidelines and adequate access to the resources needed. Because two-year college students are often juggling jobs and family responsibilities, there are limits to the amount of research we can require for each essay. I try to choose topics that are accessible to my students, supplemented by readings and activities that invite fresh perspectives on familiar territory. For example, I use a provocative New York Times essay about the murders in Columbine to prepare students for an assignment about high school life (Applebome). They highlight the sentence they like best (an idea from a Lynn Troyka workshop) and freewrite about their choice. A lively classroom discussion usually follows, and students are stimulated to take a new look at their memories of high school.
One assignment that didn’t work at first was an essay about television. TV was so ordinary and familiar to my students that even “Crack and the Box” didn’t generate many ideas. Clustering, listing, and freewriting didn’t help either. The essays did not improve until I added more preparatory activities: keeping a viewing log, discussing recent controversies about television (minority representation, for example), and examining program listings (some students who had scoffed at TV were surprised to learn what PBS offered them). Even the simple notion of making a plan for television viewing, rather than just surfing the channels every night, astonished some students. The activities made television seem new, different, and intriguing—and at last students were ready to write.
Empowering through Structure
But even students who are ready to write may have difficulty sorting and organizing their ideas. Here the split archetype of wise teacher/unknowing student becomes more problematical. Many writing instructors mistakenly believe that good writing is the product of an intuitive process that resists any attempt at definition or explanation. In this style of teaching—perhaps better labeled “non-teaching”— structure is evil: It stifles creativity and transfers ownership of the writing from student to teacher. The unfortunate result is that students are totally dependent on their instructors. Lacking guidelines, students can’t determine for themselves whether an essay is working or not. And so teachers are compelled to sit alone, night after night, trying to figure out what’s wrong with each paper, how to fix it, and how to convey the bad news without damaging students’ confidence and self-esteem. Somehow the responsibility for good writing has been shifted from our students to us.
One solution is for each teacher to define and describe “good writing” as clearly and precisely as possible (involving students in this process), and to hold students accountable to that standard. (Asking students to analyze and evaluate published articles and essays is a useful introductory activity.)
But first many of us have to shake off our old fears about formulaic writing. My own liberation began during my doctoral defense, when a committee member gently told me that I had written my dissertation backwards, with the concrete applications first and theory last, instead of the other way around. A one-page template explaining how to organize a dissertation would have saved me the trouble of inventing the highly original but very strange wheel I presented to my committee that afternoon. (They gave me the doctorate anyway.)
The writing guidelines I have worked out for myself (often in response to pleadings from my editors) have proven equally useful for my students: Use an attention-getting strategy to kick off your writing. State your thesis early—no later than the end of the second paragraph—and stick to it. Begin each body paragraph with a topic sentence, and bring each paragraph to closure. Whenever possible, tell a story. Pick out a key word (in this article it’s “power”), and hammer away at it. Consider recasting any sentence with more than three commas—it’s probably too complicated. Starting sentences with “and” and “but” adds energy to your ideas. Place subjects and verbs close together—early in the sentence is best—so that your ideas are easy to read and understand. Don’t shy away from contractions or split infinitives. Take risks, bearing in mind the postmodernist assertion that “private” and “public” writing are movable points on a continuum, not mutually exclusive categories. Structure your sentences, paragraphs, and ideas to build to a climax.
Of course no guidelines work one hundred percent of the time: They aren’t supposed to. (I finally gave up trying to put a topic sentence at the beginning of paragraph fourteen of this article.) I have read stunning Comp I essays that violated my most sacred rule: Put your thesis near the beginning and stick to it. Accountability is about consciousness, not conformity—students making thoughtful choices about organizing and expressing their ideas.
And accountability is about empowerment, not authoritarianism. When students are challenged to take responsibility for the quality of their writing, they begin to develop the mental software needed for success in academic and professional writing. As Peter Elbow asserts, many writing issues belong to “the realm of responsibility, diligence, and self-management” (369). He tells his students, “If you want to pass this course you simply have to manage yourself and do the things that writers do—one way or another” (369). My students quickly discover that I expect them to use the writing resources available on our campus, which include software and free tutoring, as well as my e-mail, voice mail, and office hours.
I had a salutary lesson about students’ hidden capabilities years ago when I taught report writing in a police academy. The cadets—most of them graduates of local high schools—were similar to my college students, with one significant difference: The cadets rarely made writing errors. The reason? Failing the writing unit meant dismissal from the academy. Cadets pored over dictionaries, Franklin spellers, handbooks, my duplicated notes—anything that would help them produce acceptable reports. It was vastly different from what went on in my regular classes, where students often relied on hunches and guesswork to stumble through their essays. That teaching experience changed my life.
This empowerment process has to begin before essays are handed in, not after. I find that scheduling writing workshops during regular classroom time is the best way to help students take responsibility for their writing. Meeting in their collaborative groups, they use colored highlighters to mark and label the structure of their latest drafts: opening strategies, thesis statements, topic sentences, examples. The streaks of color—or their absence—help group members identify and solve problems with organization and development. In addition, each student brings a marked-up checklist to the workshop to certify that mechanics—commas, capital letters, spelling, and homonyms—are correct. When problems arise, group members can help one another—or seek me out if more information is needed. Most important, students read their drafts aloud so that group members can provide the supportive audience so important to college writers.
I provide more support by visiting the groups to read students’ drafts without pointing out errors: Students need to see that I’m interested in their ideas, not their mistakes. Still another helpful strategy is asking students to describe their writing practices and assess their own work. When students identify their own strengths and solve their own problems, they have taken a giant step on the way to successful writing.
Correctness and Competence
Prevention is usually the best approach to usage and mechanics issues. Many students arrive at college with a hopeless jumble of misleading (and often wrong) rules: “Use a comma when you come to a new idea.” “Use a comma when you pause.” “Always use a comma with although, and, because, and but.” With “rules” like these resounding in their brains, it’s hardly surprising that some students simply stop trying to understand grammar—another example of the “split archetype” of wise teacher/unknowing student.
With persistence and patience, students and teachers can work together to clear away this confusion. When students have trouble with commas, I ask them to photocopy their essays and get out their highlighters. Most commas are determined by the first word in a sentence and the words and or but.1 By highlighting these words and reviewing the rules we’ve been practicing in class (Does the sentence begin with an introductory idea? Are two sentences joined by and or but?), students develop confidence with punctuation.
The usage checklists I mentioned earlier add more accountability. If I spot a mistake when I’m reading essays at home, I have the option of highlighting it on the checklist or asking the writer to find it without help from me. What I won’t do is mark or fix mistakes. I once watched an English instructor circle the word “hungar” more than fifty times in a student essay about Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist”: It was a waste of time and effort that robbed the writer of responsibility for his work. I would have stopped reading at the first misspelling.
Fortunately collaborative groups often create their own work ethic, even in basic writing classes, so that I can usually serve as a resource and a facilitator. But when a draft with major problems finds its way to my worktable, I become a person to be reckoned with. I usually take the author aside and ask for a description of his or her working process. Woe betide the student who gives me a vague explanation: “I had some long sentences, so I figured I needed a lot of commas,” or “I wasn’t sure how to put this together, so I just sort of wrote down some stuff.” Because many students have trouble with the transition from dependence to competence, I’m flexible about revisions and grades during the early weeks in a semester. The ultimate goal never changes, however: Ownership of quality issues must be transferred from me to my students.
Power to the People
And so I am advocating a revolution. We English teachers need to be liberated from the oppressive burden of paperwork we have carried for too long. For years I struggled with what I now realize was an impossible task: teaching writing via lengthy personal correspondence with students whose numbers often exceeded one hundred per semester. I was often exhausted and frustrated, especially when my students showed their lack of appreciation by misplacing, misconstruing, or simply ignoring my suggestions. Today I am happier and saner, and my students are writing better than ever before.
But my concerns go beyond the problems of dependent students and overworked teachers. Everything that occurs within the framework of our classes—what Jane Tompkins calls “the politics of the classroom” (660)—can have far-reaching impact. Linguistic instruction involves much more than merely imparting of skills and information: To change students’ language is, in the end, to change their lives. It is a scary proposition for teachers who fear that high standards and accountability will damage students’ self-esteem, corrupt their natural language, and destroy their sense of self. But these are risks that must be faced if our students are to take responsible roles in their careers and their communities. Wendell Johnson says, “Effective writing is a human necessity in anything resembling a democratic culture, and this becomes increasingly true as the culture becomes increasingly complex” (110).
We English teachers have no choice in the matter anyway: Language will do its transformative work regardless of our personalities, instructional methods, or philosophies. Time and again I have encountered former basic writing students who, degrees in hand, had metamorphosed into articulate and fascinating people. These dramatic changes were wrought not by my late-night ministrations of red ink, but by the words these students heard and practiced daily, semester after semester, in their college programs. (As evidence that language reshapes our thinking, I offer this prediction: The ideas in this article—whether you agree with them or not—will make your next set of student papers look different to you.) Teachers who worry about language power trips are right: The outcomes of linguistic growth can be as profound and irrevocable as a spiritual regimen in an ashram. (For a perceptive examination of these consequences—both positive and negative, personal and societal—see Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Teachers dealing with these issues in their classrooms can find many sensitive and practical suggestions in Peter Elbow’s article “Inviting the Mother Tongue.”)
We English teachers need to celebrate these consequences, not fear them. Recognizing the formidable power of language is the best antidote to our anxieties about imposing an alien voice, dialect, or identity on our students. Rebirth—for better or worse, desired or dreaded—is not ours to give or withhold: It always lies waiting within our linguistic symbols. The words we commit to paper, and the articulated sounds issuing from our mouths, have the power to change the lives of countless people. Let us strive to endow our students with the same power.
- These two rules account for about sixty of the commas in the text of this article. About sixty more are used for items in series (a rule that causes little trouble for students). Approximately seventy commas appear with interrupters, suggesting that this sentence pattern is important to professional-sounding prose. (I teach it during ordinary classroom talk by using an exaggerated voice drop in sentences like these: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to complete Monday’s assignment.”) Other rules generated fewer than ten percent of the commas in this article.
Applebome, Peter. “Alma Maters: Two Words Behind the Massacre.” New York Times 2 May. 1999 4:1.
Briggs, Lynn, and Ann Watts Pailliotet,” A Story about Grammar and Power,” The Journal of Basic Writing, 16 (1997): 48 – 61.
Brock Dethier, The Composition Instructor’s Survival Guide. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1999.
Elbow, Peter. “Inviting the Mother Tongue: Beyond ‘Mistakes,’ ‘Bad English,’ and ‘Wrong Language.’” JAC 19 (1999): 359 – 88.
Guggenbuhl-Craig, Adolf. Power in the Helping Professions. Woodstock, Connecticut: Spring Publications, 1999.
Hamill, Peter. “Crack and the Box” in Kathleen T. McWhorter, The Writer’s Express, 2nd edition. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997, 343 – 49.
Holt, John. Freedom and Beyond. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1972.
Horvath, Brooke K. ” The Components of Written Response: A Practical Synthesis of Current Views.” The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook. 4th ed. Ed. Edward P.J. Corbett et al., New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 243 – 57.
Johnson, Wendell. “You Can’t Write Writing.” Language, Meaning and Maturity. Ed. S.I. Hayakawa, New York, Harper & Row: 1954, 100 – 11.
Shaw, Bernard. Collected Plays with Their Prefaces. Ed. Dan H. Laurence. London: Reinhardt, 1970-74.
Richard Straub, “Concept of Control in Teacher Response,” CCC, 47 (1996): 223 – 51.
Tompkins, Jane. “Pedagogy of the Distressed.” College English, 52 (1990): 653-60.
Vaughan, Susan C., M.D. The Talking Cure. New York: Harper & Row, 1997.